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‘We don’t really do P.C.’ Latino liberals and conservatives converge in Seattle

caption: Maia Espinoza is the founder of the Center for Latino Leadership. Their gala celebrating “Latino Leaders” will be held at South Seattle College on Tuesday January 21.
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Maia Espinoza is the founder of the Center for Latino Leadership. Their gala celebrating “Latino Leaders” will be held at South Seattle College on Tuesday January 21.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Bipartisan social events seem increasingly rare these days. So the lineup is striking for the upcoming Center for Latino Leadership gala on January 21 in Seattle.

Maia Espinoza is the director of the center and ran for the state Legislature in 2018. She spoke with KUOW’s Amy Radil about hosting a diverse political crowd.

Talk about your list of speakers, they’re involved in politics at a lot of different levels.

“At the top of our ticket we’ve got Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler. After that, State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña out of south Seattle. I’m actually really proud that our highest ranking on the list are both Latinas. And then we’ve got State Rep. Alex Ybarra, from Quincy, Wash., we’ve also got Seattle City Councilman Abel Pacheco, and we’ll have a policy conversation with Roger Valdez [director of Seattle for Growth]. So it kind of alternates Republican and Democrat, which I’m also very proud of.”

We don’t see that many social events that go across party lines these days. Who’s going to be in the audience?

“Our audience is as diverse as our community itself. The Latino community represents multiple nationalities and a lot of different cultures. I think what people are coming to hear is what’s going on in politics these days, and I think people are really looking for that message of hope: that there is hope across boundaries, across aisles, and within our own community. We can have community and we can be together, even if we disagree politically on some things.”

Is there a tendency at events like this to avoid anything politically inflammatory and be super-polite?

“I find that my community is a lot more blunt than polite, which is refreshing. We don’t really do ‘P.C.’ I think if anything, if it gets heated, it’s more of an honest debate that is overdue. The whole reason we come together is … to be able to have those discussions in a comfortable space. We’re called the Center for 'Latino' Leadership. But of course that is a classic inclusive term of the community as a whole.

These days we hear a lot about 'Latinx' and how it’s more appropriate to use that. So I think some of our speakers may use language like that and others may not. At the end of the day, I think no one’s going to be triggered or offended if one uses it and another doesn’t.”

You have joked that the center is “a safe space for conservative Latinos.” You have articles on your website talking about vouchers and charter schools. Do these positions make it harder to bring liberal Latino leaders on board as speakers or supporters?

“I think it can maybe in the heat of a moment, that might come up. But I think when we continue to prove ourselves and the results of when we work together, that outweighs everything.

For example, we worked on this bipartisan, bilingual education bill which started as a Republican Senate-sponsored bill and then in the House was sponsored by a Democrat representative. The idea was to take those bilingual kids in class and encourage them to become teachers and if they taught in their own community for five years, their loans would be forgiven. So both sides came together. There was a little bit of, ‘we’re not doing it if an ‘R’ [or ‘D’] is on that’ but we got through it and the bill was passed and now it’s running statewide. What a great way to bring success back to these communities and promote that socioeconomic mobility that we’re hoping for.”

You talked about your experience feeling politically pigeonholed as a Latina by Governor Inslee and also by other voters when you ran for office a couple years ago. What’s your message to party leaders as we head into this election year?

“Party leaders on both sides need to recognize that nobody belongs to one tribe or the other. We can switch teams if we want. And just because we subscribe to one team doesn’t mean we agree with everything you stand for. It’s actually quite offensive to believe that because you are this stereotype, you have to subscribe to these values or you’re some kind of traitor. I heard stuff like that on the campaign trail and unfortunately not by members of my community.”

These were Democrats feeling dismayed that you ran as a Republican?

“Yes, white liberals telling me, 'How dare you be a Republican as a Latina.' And it’s funny because I’ve never heard that anywhere else. In Texas or another very traditionally conservative state maybe I wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the conservatives in that party. So my message to party leaders is, be open-minded, don’t be so hard-nosed about issues, have the 'big tent' mentality and mean it, and your audience needs to look like the kind of people you’re hoping to attract.”

When you hold an event bringing Republicans and Democrats together do you feel tension in the audience, or do you feel a sense that we have a lot in common, there’s things bigger than party differences?

"Among the community I think we all do feel that sense of security. I think if you go to any event whether it’s one party or not, you see people congregate together where they feel comfortable. And I think you’ll see some of the same things – maybe partisan folks will sit among friends so they can talk through issues. I think that’s perfectly healthy, organic conversation and as long as we keep it tempered we’re good.

In Quincy, Washington where Representative Ybarra is from, he said a gas station attendant came up and said, ‘Hey I saw you’re going to be speaking at some fancy event in Seattle, that’s awesome, way to go!’ He doesn’t care if he’s Republican or Democrat, he’s excited that someone from his small town is going to be at a fancy event in Seattle.”

The Center for Latino Leadership gala will be held at South Seattle College on Tuesday January 21.

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